COLUMN

Culture burdened by bureaucracy

The Applebert Committee is more attuned to politics than culture

Barbara Amiel April 20 1981
COLUMN

Culture burdened by bureaucracy

The Applebert Committee is more attuned to politics than culture

Barbara Amiel April 20 1981

Culture burdened by bureaucracy

COLUMN

The Applebert Committee is more attuned to politics than culture

Barbara Amiel

There are those illuminating moments in human affairs when a poignant confession gives the game away. Such a moment occurs on page 17 of the discussion guide of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee. “There is some reason to think,” writes the committee, referring regretfully to the Canadian love for foreign television and books, “that Canadian audiences and the publics associated with various cultural activities do not necessarily prefer domestic products when they are available.” This statement is on a par with that anguished confession by the Emperor Hirohito who, after Nagasaki and Hiroshima, addressed the Japanese with the words, “The war has gone in a direction not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

The Federal Cultural Policy Review—known among the literati as the Applebert Committee, a telescoping of the names of its chairman, Louis Applebaum, and his co-chairman, Jacques Hébert—is spending $2.8 million to study what a federal cultural policy ought to do. One is tempted to say that if, among its conclusions, it makes sure that this is the last taxpayer’s penny ever spent on studying culture, it will be worth every cent. But by now the vested interests of the Canadian cultural industry has made the subject so complicated and jargonized that any direct statement on the idiocy of cultural policies would be dismissed as “simplistic.” Let us then, in the spirit of the times, look more closely at the problems of culture in Canada.

A major problem, indeed, is the spirit of the times. The Applebert discussion guide comes with little charts and punchy drawings that ask such timely questions as: “Are present programs adequate for the cultural needs of the handicapped, isolated or low income groups?” The instant that notions such as equity and regional representation are introduced into a discussion of the creative process—never mind such intriguing new artistic concepts as the needs of handicapped and low-income groups—we are talking in a language that may be good politics but is antithetical to the arts. The arts, whether highbrow or lowbrow, are not democratic. Whether we are talking about the talented pop group The Nylons or the razor-sharp brilliance of Margaret Atwood’s poetry, we are talking about the elitism of excellence. The very newspeak of the Applebert Committee with its sociological considerations and preoccupation with “the specific and sectoral as well as the general and comprehensive” indicates clearly the major problem culture in Canada faces today: bureaucratization. Civilization should be eternally grateful that Pope Julius II had no federal guidelines encompassing “regional diversity” before turning over the Sistine chapel to the urban, white and able-bodied Michelangelo.

Let me put quickly to rest any notion that I am suggesting the government has no role in the arts. By now, in spite of the return of the private patron, a country requires consistent and generous government funding for such major cultural institutions as the CBC, NFB, major theatres, national museums and so on. But the basic problem of our culture has nothing to do with funding. It is that we are a country of 24 million people living next door to an empire of 200 million which is almost identical to us in every linguistic and cultural sense. If we want a cultural identity all our own, it would be far more effective to (1) legislate Cree as our official language, thus making Robert Redford inaccessible except through subtitles, (2) undertake a policy of territorial conquest which would make us an imperial power and get our poets read with far more attention than any External Affairs book junket could.

I do have one practical suggestion. Disband the 16 government agencies that agonize about whether to give money to poet bill bissett or to students seeking their Canadian-Jewish identity in England. This would free more money for major cultural institutions. It would also leave well enough alone. The Karen Kains, Graham Coughtrys, Stompin’ Tom Connors would flourish on a combination of their own drive, funding of national institutions and, yes, The Marketplace. For those who sneer that this is a 19th century laissezfaire notion, one is tempted to retort that our entire civilization is based on this laissez-faire foundation—a culture that has certainly proved to be more vibrant than the forsmalistic, ossified court< supported cultures from ythe Byzantine Empire to "the ancient Chinese, not to mention the Third Reich or the U.S.S.R.

If we must appoint official patrons, scrap the bureaucrats. They have now evolved into such a formidable lobby group with rules, guidelines and such tangled values that they are able to say, as council awards officer Nina Van Vaerenberg did to me a couple of years ago, that in the view of the Canada Council a book review was “serious literary criticism if it appeared in The Fiddlehead, marginal in Saturday Night and worthless in The Globe and Mail or Maclean’s.” Did the content of the review have any bearing on the council’s judgment, I inquired. “None,” she replied confidently.

The best thing to do would be to take 10 highly cultured Canadians and, with no guidelines, give them X million dollars to dispense as they see fit. Failing this, let’s take 10 names at random from the telephone book. None of them could be worse than the council bureaucrat I encountered and some might turn out to be much better.